In a major step forward for the environment, President Barack Obama's administration has signed a consent decree in which it agrees to set legal limits for the widespread nutrient poisoning that triggers harmful algae blooms in Florida waters.
"This is a refreshing change of policy after almost a decade of foot-dragging by the Bush administration," said Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer. "It is a real milestone in the struggle to safeguard lakes, rivers and estuaries throughout Florida."
Anabaena algae bloom in Caloosahatchee River at Franklin Lock, June 17, 2008. (Photo courtesy of John Cassani.) View more photographs of Florida nutrient pollution and algae blooms.
"We look forward to working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in developing numeric criteria to keep our waters safe," Earthjustice attorney David Guest said.
The change in federal policy comes 13 months after five environmental groups filed a major lawsuit to compel the federal government to set strict limits on nutrient poisoning in public waters.
Nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen poison Florida's waters every time it rains; running off agricultural operations, fertilized landscapes, and septic systems. The poison runoff triggers algae outbreaks which foul Florida's beaches, lakes, rivers, and springs more each year, threatening public health, closing swimming areas, and even shutting down a southwest Florida drinking water plant.
In a 2008 report, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection concluded that half of the state's rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality. The problem is compounded when nutrient-poisoned waters are used as drinking water sources. Disinfectants like chlorine and chloramine can react with the dissolved organic compounds, contaminating drinking water with harmful chemical byproducts.
Exposure to these blue-green algae toxins—when people drink the water, touch it, or inhale vapors from it—can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, gastrointestinal upset, serious illness, and even death. In June 2008, a water treatment plant serving 30,000 Florida residents was shut down after a toxic blue-green algae bloom on the Caloosahatchee River threatened the plant's water supply.
The public interest law firm Earthjustice filed the suit in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club in July 2008. The suit challenged an unacceptable decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for nutrient pollution. EPA's agreement to set enforceable nutrient limits settles that lawsuit.
Today's action has nationwide implications. Currently, Florida and most other states have only vague limits regulating nutrient pollution. The U.S. EPA will now begin the process of imposing quantifiable—and enforceable—water quality standards to tackle nutrient pollution.
"Floridians around the state will be breathing a sigh of relief with the EPA's new commitment to finally take action," said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "The delays on the part of the state and federal governments have been unbelievable. Today's action is welcome, and it has been a long time coming."
"The EPA's ruling could not have come at a more appropriate time for the St. Johns River," said St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. "Nutrient pollution has once again caused the appearance of the 'Green Monster' and has made the river potentially unsafe for residents and wildlife. This ruling paves the way for meaningful river restoration."
The EPA originally gave Florida a 2004 deadline to set limits for nutrient pollution, which the state disregarded. The EPA was then supposed to set limits itself, but failed to do so. Under the administration of President George W. Bush, the EPA let the states off the hook by allowing them to formulate plans without deadlines for action.
The dire state of Florida's polluted waters made the delay unacceptable and dangerous, so the five groups sued.
"These numeric standards address an outstanding need we've had for quite a while to protect our local coastal waterways such as the Caloosahatchee River, Naples Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands," said Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "Setting a quantitative water quality standard for nitrogen, one of the primary pollutants degrading our coastal waterways, should help limit the development of harmful algal blooms. With a numeric standard in place, we can definitively assess whether our waterways can support healthy ecosystems, a healthy economy and protect public health and safety."